Universal Studios is a bizarre theme park that welcomes over seven million people a year. Lately, the big draw is a sprawling replica of Harry Potter’s world, though it’s long been famous for making tourists feel like they’re characters in one of Universal’s many hit movies. The technology involved in these spectacles, however, has remained a mystery—until now.
The theme park recently invited journalists to Orlando for the first ever behind-the-scenes tour of Universal Studios, including popular attractions like The Simpsons Ride and all things Harry Potter-related. It was a rare chance to peek behind the curtain, and to wander behind the unmarked doors that nobody opens. The rides are fun, sure. Finding out what makes the rides tick, however, is a hell of an adventure.
Full disclosure: Universal Studios Florida flew me to Orlando for said behind-the-scenes tour and put me up in the Hard Rock Hotel. (Very metal.) I got a free pass to the park and two awkward dinners as part of the deal. I had to buy my own Duff’s beer.
Universal Creative Studio, the team of engineers and designers that build the rides, let a small group of reporters (sans cameras or smartphones) explore the park after the tourists had left. They turned on the lights inside the rides, so that we could walk along the tracks and see how the magic happened. About halfway through eight-hour-long tour, one of the park’s top engineers shook his head and whispered unironically, “I can’t believe we’re showing you this.”
Third Best: The Simpsons Ride
Of all the attractions at Universal Studios, Springfield is certainly the most exciting to Simpsons fanatics. You can drink a Duff’s beer at Moe’s, or ride in Homer’s car in front of a massive, 80-foot-tall OMNIMAX screen as 3D versions of Krusty and friends come jumping out at you.
The Simpsons Ride is housed in the same facility as the retired Back to the Future ride and uses much of the same hardware. The “motion base,” which is a system of hydraulic pumps that make the car lurch in all directions, is largely the same, as are the tanks of nitrous oxide that create atmospheric effects like wind and fog. The projector that fills a quarter dome of perforated screen space, however, is state of the art. Whereas the original OMNIMAX system consisted of multiple film projectors, the new all-digital system works through a single, custom-made lens. This does away with the need to stitch images from myriad projectors into one seamless spectacle and make the 3D effects more realistic.
The Simpsons Ride consists of two identical dome-shaped theaters, the scale of which are mind-boggling. Riders enter a small room and hop into a car that seats two rows of four people. When the ride starts, the car ascends into darkness, and you’re immediately immersed in four-and-a-half minutes of nonstop action, full of your favorite Simpsons characters and a giant, radioactive Maggie who saves the day. You ride a rollercoaster at Krustyland without actually moving forward, but it really feels like you’re riding a rollercoaster.
That said, all of this magic looks absolutely cheesy with the lights on. When the ride starts, the cars lurch, and the fog hisses. Absent the precisely programmed motion, the massive picture on the screen would give anyone vertigo, but laid bare, the ride’s mechanics seem obvious.
Second Best: Revenge of the Mummy
The next best stop was Revenge of the Mummy. This is the kind of ride where you see small children crying as they’re walking out, so you know it’s good. Just like the Mummy movies, the ride is a wacky mix of horrors and thrills. Unlike the movies, which suck, this ride does not.
As with most of the rides at the park, Universal Studios work closely with Stephen Sommers, director of the Mummy movies, to create Revenge of the Mummy. As our tour guide explained, Sommers wanted the ride to embody the best of his two favorite types of attractions: haunted houses and rollercoasters.
At first, the ride feels almost campy. Then you plummet into darkness and the room catches on fire—real fire, licking at the ceiling and tearing up the walls. The fire is searingly hot, unlike most tame amusement park special effects. It’s downright puzzling to figure out how the engineers pulled this one off without burning the whole place down.
When the group of reporters and Universal engineers walked through a side door during the tour, we could see the curling rails of the rollercoaster that was tightly wound in a space about the size of a ballroom. Everything was black and coated in what looks like fire retardant foam. Even with floodlights lighting the way, the Mummy’s guts are spooky.
Using an effect first pioneered for the movie Backdraft, engineers explained, Universal Studios created a controlled burn with nothing more than a bit of methane and some fans to direct the flames. They call it “brain fire,” a name that makes immediate sense once you’ve seen the cerebral curls of flames hugging the ceiling. The system is so carefully controlled, in fact, that engineers even fine-tune the fire to make it just hot enough to feel unnervingly intense, but not so hot that it would make tourists uncomfortable.
Absolute Best: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
It was nearly midnight by the time the group made it to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The newest addition to the park, it’s cordoned off to a remote corner of Universal Studios Florida and shared with its sister park, Universal Islands of Adventure. The Wizarding World’s attractions are so immersive that you could spend the better part of a day exploring them all.
Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts, which opened in 2014, is the newest J.K. Rowling-approved ride at the park. It’s not the best one, though—at least in terms of technological marvels. For the real magic, you have to hop on the Hogwarts Express, a full scale replica of the train that carries Harry and his friends from London to wizard school. When you get off, you’re in the middle of a fairy tale village. The tiny town is a superbly designed reconstruction of Hogsmeade, and Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry peers down onto the village, a castle on a hill that looks much larger than it actually is.
The illusion that you’re visiting Harry Potter’s school is only part of the fun. Whether or not you’ve read the books or seen the movies, it’s a blast marching up the stone stairs of the school. Once inside, the walls are lined with gimmicks like paintings that talk but freakishly look like real oil paintings. (I’m just spitballing, but I’m pretty sure the trick is turning a LED screen on its side and slapping a special matte coating that provides and antiqued look.) There are also classrooms full of curiosities, including the best animatronic robots I’ve ever seen. These include minor characters from Harry Potter that look like they just stepped out of the movie.
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the ride at the end of the line, consists of a series of benches that resemble church pews with heavy duty restraints. Once seated and secured, you will probably feel sick immediately. The ride moves between physical sets and immersive video experiences as the benches seem to float in midair, sometimes flipping almost upside down, all while moving sideways on the tracks.
The effect is otherwordly, and it’s impossible to figure out how Universal pulled it off. How do riders move from the brick and mortar recreation of Hogwarts into an almost virtual reality situation so seamlessly? And how do the benches swing in so many directions while the screen stays perfectly centered? Even when the group saw the ride with the lights on, it was still a bafflingly remarkable feat.
Thierry Coup, a senior vice president at Universal Studios and veteran amusement park designer, explained that they’d developed the concept for the ride before figuring out the technology that would power it. The design team wanted the benches to float seamlessly through practical and visual effects, but the engineering team had trouble figuring out how to do it. An early sketch involved installing screens in front of each bench that ride along the tracks in tandem, not unlike how dry cleaners organize hanging shirts that move along a track for easy access.
Then, someone suggested a series of carousels. This would mean that the benches would travel through more traditional, physical scenery before being spun onto a carousel that plopped a huge, half-dome screen in front of the riders. (Imagine walking through a park, hopping on a carousel for one rotation, and then hopping off and walking to the next carousel.) Each bench would get its own projector that could fill the half-dome-shaped screen with visual effects as park-goers spun around the carousel before the bench returned to the fixed tracks.
This is the part that makes you sick. When the setup was exposed in the light, it’s easy to see how the most adventurous moments of the ride happen on these carousels, as the benches swing around in front of the half-shell screens all while spinning in a circle the whole time.
BONUS — Skull Island: Reign of Kong
The group’s last stop was a construction site. Mike West, the executive producer at Universal Creative that’s overseeing Skull Island: Reign of Kong, met us at a back entrance. Our tour guides handed out hard hats and brightly colored vests and flashlights that lit the way on a dark leafy path towards the newest Universal Studios attraction.
Seeing an amusement park ride under construction is a bummer. There’s a maze where visitors will eventually wait in line, complete with half finished prop displays that feature creepy skulls and tribal artifacts. At the ride’s boarding area sits a hulking truck with enough bench seating for a couple dozen tourists to go on a choreographed safari through a fake island horror show. Unlike every other ride at Universal Studios, there were no tracks on Skull Island: Reign of Kong. The truck wasn’t affixed to anything.
“We’ve said as much as we can say about this ride,” said Mr. West, the executive, adding only that the truck would move through the ride environment in an entirely new way. The 40-foot-long truck, which resembles a military personnel carrier from World War II, had a series of sensors in the corners and a panel of what appeared to be wi-fi routers strung along the roof. Although the Universal team wouldn’t admit it at the time, the truck is largely autonomous. There is no track, and the series of sensors along the top of the truck look just like LIDAR sensors I’ve seen on self-driving cars. Plus, each of the tires can steer themselves so that the truck can pull crazy maneuvers during the ride.
The park engineers were coy about what would come after the new Kong ride. Some Universal parks have already incorporated virtual reality headsets into rides, and engineers hinted that full-fledged holograms were also in the pipeline. While these utterly futuristic experiences are still a few years away, the idea of using near future technology like self-driving cars as a gimmick is pretty fun. Just imagine how Midwestern tourists would brag to their friends at home about riding in a truck that drove itself. They’d think it was crazy!
This is all to say that the spectacle that Universal Studios is showcasing today revels in the scifi future we’ve built for ourselves. If you think back to the classic Back to the Future Ride, you could say that the park has always offered an escape an exciting, tech-fueled time. But it’s still impressive how the engineers keep inventing and keep people guessing about how the fun really happens.